In her memoir Leaving Breezy Street, Brenda Myers-Powell propels readers through the story of her remarkable life with raw energy and gripping, charismatic storytelling. A survivor of molestation, prostitution, abuse, and addiction, Myers-Powell offers a deeply honest, deeply moving look at the years of physical and emotional violence that she suffered, and the mechanisms of resilience that carried her through and beyond them. Though often devastating, her frank, revealing account is nevertheless infused with warmth, optimism, and hope.
Having survived 25 years working on the streets, Myers-Powell now reaches out to other trafficked women through her work with the Dreamcatcher Foundation, a Chicago-based non-profit she co-founded with Stephanie Daniels-Wilson that assists trafficked women aged 12 through 25. She also advocates for human trafficking victims on the United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking.
I had the privilege of speaking with Myers-Powell about her experience with writing her memoir.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Are you excited about the book’s launch?
Yes, I’m very excited, and especially in my hometown of Chicago. I’m Chicago’s child, and I am so excited that my own city is here for me. I’m like, “Receive me, Chicago.”
In an author’s note at the beginning of Leaving Breezy Street, you address the language that you use throughout the book. Can you tell me a little bit more about why you decided to include that note, and about why you chose to use certain terms instead of others? For example, you prefer to use “prostitute” instead of “human trafficking victim.”
We’re in a different generation now, in a different age. When I first started it was all about “prostitution,” “ho”—the language was totally different. Nobody was trying to give this a name to show it respect. We weren’t addressed with respect.
I started advocating in a time when there was no respect. In 1997 I was walking into rooms where people literally wanted to spit on me, because I was advocating on behalf of women in prostitution, they were still calling it. I literally had a priest slam the door in my face and tell me to get out of his office because the prostitutes were causing a ruckus in his community by leaving condoms in the parking lot. And I was talking to him about how we could make a difference in the community and he didn’t want to hear it because of condoms in the parking lot. And what I wanted to tell the priest was that there were lives behind those condoms. There were real women behind those condoms, and I wanted to tell him, “How can we help those women where they don’t have to be out there leaving those condoms in your parking lot?” He put me out of his office and slammed the door in my face and I didn’t know what to do. This was a priest. You know, who loves us, then? When you can’t find a priest who does, and at that time there weren’t even any type of clergymen that were speaking on our behalf, except that we were whores and prostitutes.
So I come from that era. [Now] they think “sex worker” is a better word. How is that a better word? Now you’re calling me a sex worker, yet there’s no validity behind that because there’s no 401K, there’s no benefits, there’s no type of social security behind the job, there is no protection. If you have a job that says “worker,” there are all these great things that fall behind that word, so if you’re saying I’m a “sex worker,” there has to be some type of benefits behind that name. You want to soften it up, but yet you have not put anything behind the word. I don’t agree with that.
So when I’m talking about my life, I’m talking about the word I was called, the name I answer to, the name that they put on my arrest report. They didn’t say sex worker, they said prostitute. They didn’t call me sex worker on the street, they called me whore. They didn’t pick me up as a sex worker, the picked me up as a prostitute. So I’m telling my story the way it was, not the way that it is done today. That’s a whole different story.
Through your work as an activist, you’ve told your story many times in speeches and panels and other forums, including in a 2015 documentary on the Dreamcatcher Foundation. What was different about putting your story into a book?
I’ve never told it in detail like I did in this book. Don’t nobody know what this book know. Because people in the other arenas would come up and ask me, “When are you going to write a book about your story? I’d like to know your story. What made you, you?” And I used to say, “Huh, I don’t know. I don’t know when I’m going to write that.” And I was thinking, “Whoa, whoa.” And I’d say something slick about “if I told you that I’d have to kill you” or something like that.
But it was Stephanie Daniels-Wilson, my partner in Dreamcatcher, who encouraged me to tell my story. She would say “Brenda, you got to tell this story. You got to tell this story.” And I said, “Ehh…don’t nobody want to hear this. Don’t nobody want to hear this.” She said, “They do. They want to hear this. You’ve got to tell this story.”
But I still haven’t told my complete story. You are getting maybe 40 percent of my story because it’s so much story I could never put it in one book. I mean, I lived a lot of life. Because I did a lot of traveling, I did a lot of running, I’ve been a lot of places.
Was it difficult to decide which of your experiences to focus on in the book? How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?
It was so difficult, very difficult. So much stuff—it’s a lot.
Certain things I thought were things I needed to talk about because I thought about them more than I thought of other things. And then other things I really think would have just taken the focus off of what I do. I didn’t want to glamorize that situation. [I wanted] a young girl to read it and see that this wasn’t as glamorous as a lot of people make it seem, and what shaped me in the streets, and that it ain’t that cute. It was a lot of money, and sometimes it was a lot of artificial fun. You hear what I’m saying? Artificial fun. Glam, a lot of nightlife, a lot of drugs, a lot of, you know, promises, a lot of this and that, but at the end of the day, or the end of where I was, I was left alone. I was nobody’s priority. I was everybody’s option. I was used through the whole rip. And when they got through, I was disposed of. And for me too, nobody was my priority. Everybody was a means and a way for me to get what I wanted.
So we lived in a world of bullshit. Each one of us using each other, and none of us getting really what we want. Isn’t that sad? I never thought about my sanity, my soul and my spirit being taken care of, me as a whole person, holistically being taken care of. I didn’t know about that. That’s not how I lived. So I didn’t think about that.
What kinds of challenges did you encounter when you were trying to capture your experiences on paper?
Some things when I was going through them, I broke down, I literally broke down. But the hardest thing I had to go through in that whole thing that tore me apart was leaving my daughter in that hospital, even though we’ve reconnected, and when I left New Orleans and abandoned my kids. Both of those times. Those are the most difficult times in my life, and it’s still hard to talk about. It still is.
I’m better. But I didn’t really know how traumatized I was because during the book I did a lot of crying. It opened up wounds that I had laid down, like you lay some wounds down in the bed and you put them to sleep, but they are still there. Having to relive some of those things by telling them in the book woke up a lot of wounds. And my molestation is one thing that it woke up. I went back to a part in my life I didn’t want to open. It was hard, very hard. There were parts in my life that I had buried because they were too hard to take, and that was one of them.
The title of the book, Leaving Breezy Street, refers to Breezy, an alter ego you took on while you were in California. Tell me a little bit about her.
I just went back to California for a two week vacation. And people walking up were saying “Breezy! Breezy! Breezy here!” It was like a celebrity, like Snoop Dog or someone came back to Cali. “Breezy! Breezy! Do you remember me Breezy? You know what you did for me?” Or, “Do you remember me? I got my life together because of you.” I didn’t even remember the man. I don’t remember! I didn’t know I had that impact on people.
Even though I was around there prostituting and getting high, I took care of people, took care of people’s kids. I met a girl here in Chicago at Mercy Home. She was the director of girls’ programs. I was doing a training, and I told a story about my life, about California, 65th and Denver, and Breezy. The girl was crying. She said, “Did you just say your name was Breezy in California?” And I said, “Yeah.” She said “Oh my God. I’m from California. I lived on the corner of 65th and Denver, right by the corner candy store. We used to watch you come outside every evening, my and my little girl friends. We used to go, ‘Oh here go Breezy!’ We used to talk about you all the time.”
She said, “One evening, my mama made me carry the garbage out, and you was out there by the garbage can doing what you do.” (I was out there smoking the pipe, right.) “You was out there doing your thing and I walked up on you. And you stopped what you was doing, and you turned around and looked at me, and you said, ‘Don’t you grow up to be like me.’ I just looked at you and nodded, and then you walked away.” I said, “I did?” And she said, “Yep. and you walked away with that Breezy walk. But I never forgot you.” She said her mom met a man who took them away, she was able to get a good college education, and that’s why she started to work with girls.
I can’t make this up, that’s what I did. I don’t remember no girl! I don’t remember what I did! She remembered that and it impacted her life, what I said in that alley, when I was high, and I meant it you know.
When you were in recovery at Genesis House, you had a funeral for Breezy. You wrote her a letter of appreciation and then burned those pages and buried them as a ritual to let Breezy go. Was it difficult to write her out of your life that way?
It was very therapeutic for me, because at that time I needed to release Breezy to become Brenda again. Brenda Jean was the little girl who was abused, suffered and Breezy needed to take care of her on the streets. [Brenda] would have got crushed out there. But not Breezy. Breezy loved it. Breezy was a nut. With costumes, personality, it was the Breezy Show. She woke up every day with a new wig and a new outfit, and she could be anybody she wanted to be, as long as she wasn’t Brenda Jean, because she pushed Brenda Jean down in there to save her. And Breezy was like “I got this. Don’t you worry.”
But I think she was kind of tired. She was tired. And it was getting very dangerous for her. She had had a lot of close calls with death. Death was knocking on her door. She was very tired of fighting. The fights became too hard and too close together.
And so you know, I say I buried her, but I had to reach back and get some parts of her back because I find that all of her wasn’t bad. Some of her for survival purposes needed to come back out and handle some of this shit that’s going on now. She’s a bit tougher than Brenda. And I had been getting pushed around a little bit and I was like, ‘Mm-mm. No, I gotta go get Breezy because I need a little bit of her to deal with y’all’s shit.’ I went back and got her. Little pieces of her. So now she and Brenda coincide together.
I would imagine that readers who have experienced human trafficking, like the women you help through the Dreamcatcher Foundation, will be able to identify with you and what you went through. How do you think other readers who haven’t experienced human trafficking and don’t know as much about it will react to your story? How do you want them to react?
It’s not all about human trafficking. Let me tell you what it’s about. It’s about women. Because as women, we go through shit. I’ve talked to women since I’ve been out of human trafficking, and this is what I found out. When I was at Genesis House these great women used to come over from the suburbs, you know, Wilmette, Evanston, these women with weath, and they used to come over there and bring expensive casserole dishes and donate their expensive clothes.
But then, they started hanging out and talking to us and stuff, and I found out they were sisters. Because they had bad dates, they had date rape, they had bad relationships, some of them had been through domestic violence with guys, bad husbands, bad experiences in life, some of them had to fight to the top so they could get the salaries that the men were getting, if they got them, or they were paid less than men and treated like shit in their offices. We were talking to them about our experiences and they would open up with us, and tell us about how it wasn’t all roses in their lives either. Sure, they got the money and the doctorates or bachelors or masters, but this is what they went through. “My husband shit on me and left me with kids and I had to start all over and finish school and work a full time job to take care of my kids. I didn’t have to mop floors but I had to work and do this and do that.”
And I listened to her struggle. I listened to her heart hurt. I’m listening to her heart hurt like mine hurt. She wasn’t hurt by multiple men, or by a pimp, but she was hurt by a man, and his abuse was like the men had abused me. He tore her heart up, like the pimp tore my heart up, and he laid hands on her like he laid hands on me. And it hurt just like it hurt me. So, it’s different? Because I came from a poor neighborhood and she came from a better neighborhood? It’s still pain, and pain’s pain.
We are sticking to the same bullshit just in different spots, just in different places, in different ways. Yes, it don’t have to be human trafficking. But it is pain. It’s the same pain and the same abuse and misuse. It’s the same power and control wheel. So don’t differentiate me from you and any other woman. We are being fucked up by the same men who do that shit. No different. So yes, I have a relatable story to all women. Not just prostitutes, not just women in human trafficking. Women in abuse, or any woman who has to fight like hell to be a woman.
Now that Leaving Breezy Street is out, what’s next for you?
I’m hoping for a television series or something like that where I can tell more stories from my life that will open women’s eyes. I can put more stuff out here, I can tell so much, and I’d like to see it evolve into that. If not, another book, definitely another book.
And more Dreamcatcher. We opened up a drop-in center and we’re hoping that we’ll have a Dreamcatcher house one day here in Chicago, because Chicago has nothing for human trafficking, nothing, and its sad because we’re the third largest hub here in the United States for human trafficking.
And, I’m not just an advocate for human trafficking, I’m an activist for women, wherever, whatever, because we need to stop being dismissed. Period. We are so resilient and beautiful and strong, and we keep being dismissed, you know, not so much by men by each other. Our strength and our sisterhood has to be recognized. My mentor is Edwina Gately and she says all the time that “you better not mess with a circle of women, because there is so much power in a circle of women.” And she ain’t lying.
Leaving Breezy Street
by Brenda Myers-Powell
Henry Holt and Company
June 29th, 2021
Dana is a writer and editor living in Chicago.